Belonging to the oilseed crops category, soybeans are a major agricultural staple in North America.
Soybeans trail only to corn with regard to levels of production and are often grown by farmers in crop rotation with corn, ultimately harvested in late September or October (as per statistics portal Statista).
According to the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA-NASS), the nation’s soybean production for 2017 reached as much as 4.39 billion bushels, 2% more from what was tallied in 2016.
Additional statistics show that more than 80 percent of America’s soybeans are cultivated in the upper Midwest. These states of Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota—all comprising what is called the US Corn Belt—are listed as the country’s top states for soybean production.
This breakout crop in America’s agricultural industry comes with its own set of breakout challenges to sustainable production, and the key to these are better management practices and strategies for a crop field’s water capacities, organic matter, nutrients, compaction, and pests or disease.
What follows below is a primer on some of the unique problems and their corresponding solutions, with regard to growing soybeans in the US. This article also puts forward five management practices to exercise within the field for sustainable soybean production.
An Emergent Challenge, A Technological Solution
One of the common issues to hit a soybean crop is the spread of fungal diseases during the growing season. The challenges that arise are these: the need to detect the spread of disease before the season culminates, and the need to maximize any investments in fungicide by detecting priority areas for application within the field.
The case for spectral imaging for sustainable soybean production illustrates how modern technology and sustainable management practices can combine in order to bring out the best in the soybean crop.
The aforementioned technology is typically utilized for commercial crops. High-resolution aerial imagery can expose what cannot be seen through the naked eye, such as evidence of a fungal disease like Cercospora spreading in the pre-harvest stages of crop growth.
Thus, the technology supplements a thorough assessment of how severe the threat of disease may be to the targeted area and forms the basis of better management practices to be implemented for pest and disease control.
This mindset of making the best of the tools available for large-scale agriculture, and linking this usage to corresponding sustainable management practices, is central to ensuring viable soybean crop yields, and growing soybeans sustainably.
Growing Soybeans Crop: 6 Key Management Practices
That said, what other combinations of technology and best practices can commercial growers implement for the longevity of their soybean crops? Here’s a short list of tips, with some of the points adopted from recommendations presented by agronomy specialist Max Glover on AG Web.
Focus on Soil Drainage
The first key practice pertains to the resource management of water, especially as there is no guarantee for perfect rainfall scenarios to occur every soybean planting season.
With regard to the strategy of water management, growers can stand to reduce tillage or employ conservation tillage. These will increase water-holding capacity in the field while preserving soil ecosystem functions.
Practice Crop Rotation
Rotating legume crops like soybeans with grass crops like corn can help control pests and diseases because it breaks the lifecycle of organisms that are harmful either only to legumes or to grass crops. Furthermore, crop rotation helps with managing nutrient levels in the soil.
Unlike corn, soybean obtains nitrogen by taking advantage of its symbiotic relationship with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria Bradyrhizobium japonicum, which means that more nitrogen will be available for the corn in a corn-soybean rotation. This is important since nitrogen fertilizer represents a significant cost for farmers.
Practice Precision Agriculture
Precision agriculture or site-specific crop management aims to determine which aspects of the farming practices need to be improved upon for optimum crop health and productivity.
For instance, accurate targeting of agrochemicals in soybean farming can help reduce overall use of chemicals during a given growing season.
Manage Soil Nutrient Content
Key macronutrients that sustain the soybean crops are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Without proper nutrient levels of P and K, especially, it is difficult for soybean fields to stay productive, and each grain is taken off the field also subtracts nutrients.
Soil-testing for these macronutrients is recommended every 1 to 4 years, in addition to building a plan for managing the nutrient levels of the soil based on those results.
Reduce Soil Compaction
Best practices should also be implemented with regard to minimizing compaction; this entails keeping on top of the weather and avoiding fieldwork and the exposure of tools when the soil is too wet for work.
Soil types for soybean growing also differ per region; thus, it is helpful for commercial farmers to also learn more about the sustainability of their soil from soil conservation professionals.
Prevent Pests and Spread of Disease
Lastly, as related to the example cited above for fungal disease, pest and disease management are key to protecting the viability of the soybean crop. Trends should continue for the thorough examination of crops for strains of disease or pests, and scout for the particular threats that make the field vulnerable.
With regard to protecting the field, prevention is still better than cure: the costs for pesticides and other technologies could be small as compared to rescue treatments, or worse, the permanent loss of the crop.
Soybeans have come a long way; no longer an exotic crop, soybeans are now an American staple. Key technologies and a mindset for implementing best agricultural practices will keep our soybeans growing healthily and sustainably.
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